Haute Route Day 10 – above Zinal to above Gruben – Cushy Cozy Camp to Snickers Power Camp
Kilometers hiked: 18-ish
Total Kilometers: 274.5
Haute Kilometers: 133
Alamo electric shocks: 1
Tadpoles eaten: 1
Proper squats missed: 2
Gryllz: “Did you just poop your pants!?!”
Alamo: “No I just had one bite of curry.”
And that’s how the day started. Delightful. Such is life on the trail. Alamo and Gryllz rushed to take down their shelter first thing before eating breakfast, ready to be free of each other’s excellent company. Spice and I smiled and took a more leisurely approach. We didn’t want to be on the trail too early, after all.
The world was sunny and damp. A few clouds still lingered from the night, but they didn’t look like they would last long under the harsh scrutiny of the sun. Granola, bag cake, peanut butter, and coffee La Croix for breakfast. We all agreed that this had been one of the most comfortable camps of the trip so far. Slip-sliding back down to the trail a little after 10am, shoes and socks soaking up all the cold rainwater sitting on scrubby bushes. Right onto the trail, right on time.
The walking continued right where we left it, smooth belvedere around grassy Swiss hillside. To the amusement of all, Alamo got a bit of a jolt from an electric gate as we crossed pastures at an empty dairy hut. Having just passed through myself unscathed, I was thoroughly confused as to how he pulled that off. It’s okay though, no one was watching, except for the group of 15-or-so hikers hanging out at the water fountain. The clouds made a spirited comeback as we cruised, speaking of the PCT and trail names for Alamo and Gryllz (that’s right, “Alamo” and “Gryllz” are not trail names.). It now felt like we were walking out of the mountains completely. All the big icy stuff was disappointingly behind us and I couldn’t help turning around frequently to check that they were still there, just as a dog will do when hiking out in front of his/her human. We really were pushing away from the Matterhorn now. Still, the walking was beautiful by any reasonable standards, if not gnarly and epic. The Bernese Alps, in view across a broad, inhabited valley, were interesting in their own smoother way. I had to poop really bad and, as a stupid point of pride, wanted to make it to the next hut rather than dig a hole. Most of this blissful walking along easy, smooth trail was lost on me. I was able to make good time, however, and put on the jets for the last 20 minutes of total desperation. With relief, I made it to Hotel Weisshorn, the others some unimportant distance behind.
This famous establishment was worthy of the hype with classic architecture, lovely patio seating, adequate commode, and buckets of sliced bread. A little too fancy for us, though. We eschewed the busy benches and plunked our butts on pokey grass on a hill overlooking all. We gorged on all of the things in the warm sun. Interesting mixtures of wasabi peanuts, bread, mayo, and chili sauce made their rounds. Peanut M&Ms flew artfully into expectant mouths. The lounging continued until a sheet of rain blitzed us from across the valley. One more pass to go. Weather deteriorating. Time to get hiking again. 2pm.
The sun actually came out again as soon as we started moving. Welcome and warm. A little down-up action pointed us in the right direction through some stunning landscape. Steep at first, then flattening to gradual, we ascended through and across a glacial bowl of grass and boulders that reminded me of Rohan from LOTR. There were no horse lords present however, and, in fact, we were the only people around. I should take this moment to mention how uncrowded large parts of this Haute Route have been. Unsurprisingly, there have been hordes of day hikers concentrated around the larger towns and parking lots in the valleys, but up high between these valleys the land has been our own. Way more cows than people up here. This is much more like Sierra backpacking in California than the TMB. We have seen a few small groups a couple of times, but otherwise I feel as if this is our adventure, our idea, our itinerary, despite it coming straight from a guidebook. Our camping approach is likely the largest factor contributing to our solitude. By staying half-way between towns/huts, we safely remain half-way of each day away from the majority of people on this route. This effect was the same on the TMB, yet the sheer number of people out there made delusions of solitude difficult to conjure outside of the early mornings and late afternoons when the hut-hikers were in their huts.
So where was I? Where were we? Yes, the glacial bowl. This really really did feel like a place taken straight from the Sierra (see Humphrey’s Basin, Upper Basin, Pioneer Basin, Miter Basin, Basin Basin, etc.). The same granite. The same sharp peaks scraping skyward above skirts of crumbly scree. The same gradual approach to a pass until a mad concentration of switchbacks up an impossible pile of boulders. We stopped at a particularly beautiful view to give a rousing rendition of Rattlin Bog, eat sour gummy dinosaurs, and consider the word of the day, guzzle (or was it gargle?). Easy, steady up to the pass in our usual configuration. Alamo way ahead, me way behind, Spice and Gryllz somewhere back there. Meidpass(2790m). Alamo was so tired of living life in such a beautiful place that he tried to kill himself by climbing half-way up a chossy pile of crappy rock before coming to his senses and reversing his moves. Gryllz recharged by gulping down a sleeve of Oreos. The view from up there ruled. You can guess by now what we saw so I won’t even say it.
The weather really did look like it was deteriorating for good this time, so we boogied down the other side of the pass, past many lakes that looked prime for swimming or camping. But not now, too cloudy, too much hiking left. Dropping out of the last grass/boulder bowl, I let the others get ahead while I tended to a toe issue that I had developed the day before. Felt like a blister on my second toe, but an inspection revealed no visible ailment. Tape it up, keep moving. Down, pass by skinless teepees, through the ludicrously charming village of Ober Stafel, down. Under the gathering storm, the trail tumbled us thousands of feet down through first juniper and blueberry-covered slopes, then a forest of larch pine. We bottomed out in Gruben, a small village with nothing for us, but a water fountain.
The clouds let us have it as we were filling our bottles. All hell broke loose. Torrential rain blew sideways, lightning fizzed, accompanied by instant thunder too loud to shout over. We got moving. Dry people waved at us from the hotel dining room as they enjoyed their meals. We kept moving. It was all out effort to reach the trees above town. My umbrella struggled in the wind so soon I was soaked and a little bit colder than I would have liked. The trail was now a baby river of chocolate milk with ooey gooey banks. Shoes were now saturated sponges. Somehow we had settled on a perverted schedule of ending our days with brutal climbs out of valleys and tonight was no different. By our standards it was too early to camp. Not like we would have found a flat spot anyway. The lower 800ft or so of each valley has been consistently devoid of habitable terrain so we always require a big effort to reach gentler slopes above. That was aiight with me. I needed to keep hiking to stay warm and I had a good feeling that the storm would let up before dark. All we needed to do was hike. Hiking would fix everything.
It took an extraordinary effort on everyone’s part to push on. Energy ebbed. Rain ebbed. Shorts became soiled. We exited the treeline to meet more wide-open pasture. More cows. Sheep? Turtles? I won’t speak for each individual’s struggle, but it took a stroopwafel and emergency snickers to fuel me up to the next bench. Alamo and I dropped our packs to crawl around looking for a flat spot. He went up and fortunately I didn’t. I jogged across soggy tussocks and splashed through creeks before I found home just beyond the slope’s horizon. A close-trimmed patch of flat grass 30 yards square surrounded by broken down stone walls. We set up quickly, peeled off our soaked clothes, bundled into bed, then got eating (the usual). I suspect that everyone was more cold and tired than we knew. I was still jacked up on the snickers sugar, but when that wore off I was worn out.
Despite the fatigue, I’m proud of us. This is living! I mean LIV-ING. Pushing beyond ones comfort zone and meeting the wild on its own terms. We’re not totally doing that, what with all our fancy gear and such, but it’s a darn sight better than sitting sheltered in a hotel dining room. It might be borderline type-2 fun, but we are crushing it out here. Plus, I bet they don’t have snickers and peanut butter at the hotel. Snacks, a sleeping bag, and friends. What greater things can a hotel offer? Alright, alright, alright, a toilet would be nice to have.